A Wisconsin brewery is serving an usual purpose this year by helping parents who are suing state school districts over alleged failures to protect students from COVID-19.
Kirk Bangstad started the Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC in January, intially intending to help small businesses deal with financial repercussions from the pandemic.
In the months since, the Super PAC has grown in both scope and scale.
The PAC’s latest mission will be to sue “every school board in Wisconsin” that doesn’t follow proper guidelines from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 in schools, Bangstad wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends, in part, that all teachers, students and staff wear masks at school regardless of vaccination status.
It began when Bangstad heard that a local school board member was resigning after facing a recall vote for a mask mandate policy that applied to children under 11, who are still too young to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Bangstad soon discovered the outrage over such mitigation strategies was hardly isolated, and put out a call on the Minocqua Brewing Company’s Facebook page in late September to see if parents were concerned over the weakened restrictions.
“I said, [are] there any parents that have kids who have gotten COVID that have school districts who have removed all of these protections?” Bangstad said of his Facebook post in an interview with Spectrum News on Tuesday. “And I was deluged by parents from all over the state of Wisconsin, as well as teachers, who were furious that they were being put in harm's way.”
Bangstad found two separate plaintiffs willing to file lawsuits. Money from the Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC is funding both.
According to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the first suit was filed in federal court on Oct. 5, when parent Shannon Jensen sued the Waukesha School District and school board. Jensen is seeking an injunction ordering the district to comply with CDC COVID-19 guidelines, saying her children were exposed to and contracted the virus while in class.
According to the lawsuit, the board in May removed a student mask requirement and other COVID-19 mitigation measures. One of Jensen’s son’s classmates came to school with symptoms in September and didn’t wear a mask. Jensen’s son was seated next to the sick student and was wearing a mask but still became infected. Jensen’s other two sons later tested positive as well.
Waukesha School Board President Joseph Como declined to comment on the lawsuit.
A subsequent lawsuit was filed on Monday, according to local affiliate WEAU-TV.
The suit, which mirrors the one filed by Jensen, was filed by Gina Kildahl, who is seeking an injunction forcing the Fall Creek School District to comply with CDC guidelines for schools.
Kildahl’s suit alleges the district ended its mitigation policies for the 2021-22 school year and two of her son’s classmates tested positive for the disease on Sept. 20 and Sept. 24. One of them didn’t wear a mask to school. She alleges her son, who wore a mask, tested positive on Sept. 27 and missed two weeks of school while in quarantine.
Kildahl alleges the district violated her son’s equal protection rights and caused his infection. The lawsuit compares the school to a “COVID-19 snake pit.”
The Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC is funding both lawsuits.
The goal, Bangstad said, is not to drag out the lawsuits, or even to go to court, adding that parents want a quick resolution with immediate action.
“We want to judge to understand the time sensitivity of protecting kids and communities from COVID and do some sort of a restraining order to force all schools that aren't following the COVID guidelines to do that,” Bangstad said.
Bangstad, who cannot simply sue the school boards independently, also recognizes that it may not be financially feasible for every concerned caretaker to hire a lawyer — but he hopes there will be enough similar lawsuits to form a class action suit against school boards that fail to protect their students.
“We didn't set out to sue schools,” Bangstad told Spectrum News, saying he originally started the Super PAC after Republicans Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Tom Tiffany voted against the December 2020 stimulus package.
At the time, Bangstad — who said his overall goal is to “make northern Wisconsin more progressive, so that we're not a swing state anymore” — started selling what he deemed Progressive Beers.
The company’s products include “Biden Beer,” named for President Joe Biden’ “Tammy Shandy,” named for Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin; and “Evers Ale,” named for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
Five percent of every purchase will go towards the Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC.
Despite Bangstad’s goals, he maintains that protecting children from COVID-19 should not be a partisan issue.
“At the end of the day, this should not be political,” Bangstad said Tuesday. “I think if we put our Republican and Democrat hats away and put on our Christian hats, or Jewish hats, or Muslim hats or any other religious hats on, we'd realize that following the science of COVID, and protecting our children and our teachers and communities is the religious and Christian thing to do.”
So why is a brewery helping parents sue school districts? For Bangstad, the answer is simple: “Because we can and we haven't found anyone else willing to take the lead.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.